John Robinson of the News-Record in Greensboro, NC wrote a piece this morning about a meetup we had at his paper in February 2005. Back then I was pushing the idea that news organizations should host blogs for their community. I'm still pushing the idea, and still getting the question back from the people in the news orgs wondering why they would do that.
I didn't answer the question then probably because I didn't want to have an argument with a roomful of reporters, editors and their managers. Been there, done that. I put the idea out there on the chance that there was a kindred spirit in the room. You never know when you'll find one.
I pitched the same idea at the NY Times in December at a roundtable meetup with a variety of editorial and technical people. This time I did try to answer the questions when they came up, and predictably, an argument ensued.
I spent last week apartment shopping in Manhattan. I learned a lot but returned to Berkeley without success. I wish the Times or some other NY newspaper had a current how-to guide for Manhattan newbies. There's so much information you need to even begin the search. Manhattan is a huge, complex and very strange place for renters. I found a dozen apartments I could easily afford that I loved, but I came home without a lease. How weird is that!
There are a million other locality-based information projects that don't get done because news organizations have a narrow view of what they do. If I were helping them be creative, I'd ask them to branch out. Think of services they could provide for their community that aren't being provided.
An example. The Times champions causes like The Neediest. This is a good thing we all agree, I think. Amidst the wealth of NYC there are a lot of poor people who aren't making it. Help them out, says the Times. We'll use our channel to help you understand the problem, you give to help the people once you understand.
Okay. In a week in Manhattan I learned that Internet connectivity in the biggest city in the US sucks. It's much better in the boroughs and the suburbs, because of the economics of high rise apartment buildings. It would take a few paragraphs to explain why it is that way, but basically you're lucky to get really great FIOS-level broadband in Manhattan. There's no easy way to find out which neighborhoods have it. And Time-Warner seems to install high bandwidth cable in areas where FIOS is available. Is there a resource in the city that keeps current? If there were, I bet the connectivity of Manhattan would jump many times in a very short period of time. Sunlight, they say, is a great disinfectant.
Well, this kind of news isn't the stuff of high-level reporters, who are covering the meaning of the latest tea leaves from DC or where ever, not to say that stuff isn't interesting, but lots of people do it, and it's hard to find great money-making ads to put on that kind of copy, so the Times is struggling to find a new business model.
But! A web resource devoted to boosting Internet connectivity in Manhattan, now that would attract some serious money. I met with Jeff Jarvis on this trip and he asked me to think about ways for news orgs to make money. This is how you do it. Understand your community and the needs of its economy, where money is flowing, and where it's being held back due to a lack of information, and pour resources into that area. You will find a way to draw money from the activity you're covering.
Now, back to John Robinson's query. Why should news orgs host blogs for members of their community? Because the business of news organizations is information. Gather it up, sort it, organize it, keep it current and do it again. People have a huge thirst for new information, more these days than ever and increasing all the time. It's ridiculous that information-gathering orgs should be shrinking in a time where what they do is in such high demand. We're constantly checking our Droids and Nexus One's for new stuff to interest our short attention span.
Let the people in so you can find the wells that need digging. We can poke around the surface, but we have lives and jobs -- other missions. Watch where we go, and help us achieve. The rewards will be our trust and the money of businesses that want to learn from and educate through that flow. Same way Twitter, Facebook and Google are expanding now, that should be happening in the news business.
Back in 2004, and even before, I saw the erosion of the business model that's playing out now. If the road you're on is being eroded, you should start building a new road asap. If you wait for the road to wash out then you have to live without a road while the new one is being built. Back then I was thinking about the Rest of Us. If the newspapers are stuck in a loop of self-pity and aren't doing anything to change with the times, we can do two things: 1. Help them see the logic in changing and 2. Implement the change without them. That's what I was doing then, and continue to do.